On Jan. 4, 41 teams made up of hundreds of Oklahoma teenagers picked up plastic tubs containing a standard kit of about $17,000 worth of parts. There were no instructions in the box.
That's because these students are part of the Oklahoma FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, the brainchild of Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway.
The students' mission is to design and build an original robot from scratch.
This year's robot has to pick up, roll and throw an exercise ball, all with a special twist. The robot must work with two other robots in a kind of alliance, but the robots won't “know” until the competition who their allies are. Robot teams from Oklahoma and other states will be assigned by computer and will change with every match.
Of course, as Oklahoma First Regional Director Harold Holley says, the real story of the robotics competition isn't about 120-pound robots tossing a ball, it's about getting thousands of Oklahoma of teenagers visibly excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
FIRST Robotics teams and the teachers that lead the programs make a big commitment. Participation is on top of everything else that's part of regular school. Teams work after classes end and don't go home until as late as 10 p.m. Most meet all day Saturdays.
The program is mentor-based. Practicing or retired technical engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs pair up to help students learn how to solve design problems.
While the students build their robots, they don't just get interested; they get excited. The light bulb goes on, and they begin to understand why they need to study science and math.
“Here's this student side-by-side with this mechanical engineer, this electrician, or this auto mechanic who lives down the street,” Holley says. “The students begin to realize that there are careers out there that are very interesting, careers that are both creative and technical in nature. They get the message that instead of being that 1 percent who might make it to the NBA or a musical stage, they have a real opportunity to go pro in engineering, science, or math.”
The Chickasaw Nation is a FIRST competition sponsor. The state and many other businesses, foundations, and academic institutions contribute as well.
As parents and citizens of Oklahoma, this is one STEM initiative we should all get behind. You can help by:
Becoming a financial sponsor.
Volunteering to mentor a team.
Supporting the kids by attending the regional competition March 27-29 at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City.
Building a robot is far from being a no-brainer. Supporting the student teams that are doing it is.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state's technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Email Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.
DID YOU KNOW?
In 2013, Oklahoma First Regional Competition served more 58 teams of more than 1,600 students and mentors. One quarter of the team members were female.